Since the drone became a significant part of modern experimental music – courtesy of American composer La Monte Young in the 1960s – it has been used, broadly speaking, to achieve two different aims. Rock groups with a nose for the avant-garde have employed it as a jumping off point to explore the rich musical possibilities of primitivism or the lysergic, shamanistic qualities prized by musicians from the mid-’60s until today. Foremost among these groups were the likes of the Velvet Underground: the viola drones of John Cale that underpinned much of their early work are rightly hailed as a turning point in popular music’s rich history and genres as diverse as psych-folk, post punk, and doom metal all owe a debt to this technique. In these cases the aim of the drone is as a conduit for the investigation of other musical forms or a method of altering the mind-state of the listener. Either way, the drone becomes a canvass, as substitute for silence, something that can be worked upon.
The other, less common aim – and the one pursued by the standard bearers of the avant-garde – is the use of the drone not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Purveyors of what has become known as ambient music brought this kind of drone to a wider audience in the 1970s, but there remained a considerable underground presence continuing the experimental tradition.
It is evident from the start that Amanda Feery and Michael Tanner’s collaboration follows this second, more compositional modus operandi. To Run The Easting Down is made up of just three lengthy pieces. The duo eschew for the most part the trappings of song-based recording – structure, narrative and melody are all present to some degree, but are altered, stretched or buried to such an extent that to discover them takes concentration and rewards the work of the listener with delight and surprise. Their esoteric approach is reflected in their choice of instruments. A strohviol lends an eerie, detached and redoubled sound to certain passages, while there is also liberal use of bowed dulcimer, handbells and kemenche.
Opening track Squarepusher is an old composition of Feery’s, originally scored for vocal performance but here given a lengthy, atmospheric makeover. The bowed and plucked strings and minimal piano soon unfold into a repeated vocal phrase which, when it gives way about nine minutes in, reveals a steady background hiss running at a separate contour the original pitch, which is now quieter. These two strands change place again before the track’s conclusion. It is an interesting method, one which brings even more subtlety to a form that already relies heavily on nuance. Hidden in the track are organic sounds, breaths, twitches and knocks, which resemble found sounds and which give the whole piece an air of serendipity and spontaneity.
Sidhe – the title refers to mound-dwelling spirits of Gaelic folklore – is split roughly down the middle. The first half is a beautiful, long-winded crescendo of tinkles and plinks. The second is more muted, with piano chords that barely emerge from the shimmering backdrop.
Svartedauen – the Norwegian for ‘black death’ – casts off into a long, meandering peal of handbells which slowly diminish. Apparently the plague reached Norway when a ghost ship, full of wool and rats and the corpses of the crew, landed near Bergen. The handbells take on a sinister aspect in this context. Here the bells, like most of the more immediate percussive sounds on the record, augment rather than impinge – their almost random spacing and fluctuations in volume seem to defy musicality and trespass into the realm of sound art. But that is not to say that it doesn’t sound musical. Themes can be readily picked out, albeit themes that evolve with glacial slowness. The viola phrase is one of slow rise and fall, like a tide or the breathing of a giant animal, and is set against a long vocal wail.
At six and a half minutes Sybelline – the extra track available with the vinyl pre-order – is comfortably the shortest on offer here. In many senses it is also the simplest. A gentle, wave-like drone is punctuated by plinks and plucks. It is the closest Tanner and Feery get to what most people would call an ambient sound. But like everything else on the record, there is a discernible arc, a rise and fall that tells a story that is both familiar and unfamiliar.
There are other artists in the pop sphere currently making music that is superficially similar to that of Feery and Tanner. Julianna Barwick’s meditative pieces could be described as shorter, less patient relatives of the tracks here, while United Bible Studies (Tanner is a regular member and Feery has also appeared in the line-up [on So As To Preserve The Mystery]) follow a similarly elemental path, only with more literal or song-driven outcomes (and more guitars). But if anything Feery and Tanner sit more comfortably alongside the groundbreaking minimalist and experimental composers of the second half of the twentieth century. In To Run The Easting Down they have created a record that is not always easy, but is nonetheless beautiful and immersive. The fact that it was made by two artists on opposite sides of the Atlantic is testament to the power of collaboration, and a sign that such collaboration has a bright future.
Review by: Thomas Blake